Thursday, September 16, 2004

NOT QUITE GRABBING THE POINT: There's a frankly absurd piece in the East Bay Express by Eric K Arnold, who believes that the current Outrage campaign against reggae hate songs is, oh yes, racist. Arnold believes that the very term "reggae bigot" is "oxymoronic" because of reggae's tradition of making songs which attack racial injustice. It's not quite clear if he really believes that making music in a genre where others have made songs calling for freedom immediately makes it impossible for someone to ever be a bigot - in which case, Skrewdriver can't possibly be racist as they're making music in the same field as The Specials and Lenny Kravitz - but it's when he gets to the crux of his "argument" that he really starts to make enormous leaps of cod-logic:

To be sure, Jamaican artists make an easy target for gay activists. The homophobia in some cases is undeniable, even if it has to be translated for non-patois-speaking folks. But from a political and economic standpoint, there may be other reasons for trying to stamp out Jamaican artists' careers this way. Black music forms like reggae and rap have all but taken over the UK, and the possibility of a vibrant Afro-Caribbean culture emerging from its urban ghettos has to be seen as anathema to the more conservative factions of Jamaica's onetime colonial master, be they gay or straight.

First of all, Arnold seems to be implying that the calls to kill gays and lesbians don't really count as they're made in patois, and thus your average English homosexual wouldn't understand them if they didn't have them translated for them. Which is on a par with saying that Mein Kampf really shouldn't have troubled the British, as it was only upsetting if you sat down with an English-German dictionary.

But then to suggest that the Outrage campaign is inspired by fear of "reggae and rap" "taking over the UK" is just astonishing. The need to add "and rap" into the mix at least suggests he realises that reggae on its own is no more popular than many other sorts of music, and the whole "taking over" phrase itself - like some sort of Daily Mail editorial on asylum seekers, suggests that it's Arnold himself, rather than Outrage, which has some issues to work through.

But then Arnold warns about what the risk would be if leaning on the homophobic reggae artists worked:

"There's a lesson to be learned here from the censorship troubles faced by hip-hop a decade ago, when its mainstream appeal and economic clout was just starting to become apparent -- much as with dancehall today. Censoring "offensive" lyrics by Jamaican artists could result in the same kind of dumbing-down and mainstream filtration that saturated rap music following the PMRC/Christian Coalition machinations of the '90s."

In other words, Arnold believes that if musicians are asked to choose between being welcome in London and making songs calling for the chi-chi men to be gunned down, we're in danger of forcing reggae into being little more than Will Smith with dub. Isn't this rather misunderestimating the talent of reggae artists in the first place? Most of the reggae greats have managed to make complex, interesting, engaged music without resorting to a spot of queerbashing.

Arnold then switches back to inspecting Outrage's conscience for signs of racism:

At the very least, there's a danger in any predominantly white organization attempting to characterize a predominantly black culture according to its own agenda. OutRage's inflammatory press releases, for instance, detail instance after instance of lyrical "homophobic hate crimes" by Jamaican artists, but fail to mention that most of the songs are several years old.

Some of the songs are quite old; but most of them are still part of the targetted artist's live shows - indeed, Arnold's own piece quotes the Jamaica Observer on this very point: "Beenie Man, who was celebrating his birthday, took time to point out that he did not apologize for his gay-bashing lyrics, and went on to perform some of his antigay tunes." So it doesn't matter if someone's singing hate songs now, so long as they were written a while ago?

OutRage's strategy seems to be to force the Jamaican government into action by blockading what is in effect an export commodity. But why not go after the officials who have turned a blind eye to violence against gays and demand change on a legislative level? Instead, OutRage's campaign has dehumanized dancehall artists, and by forcing the cancellation of shows, has imposed de facto economic sanctions on an already poor nation tragically ravaged by violence -- only a small portion of which is directed at gays.

No, sweetcakes, Outrage's strategy is to try and create an atmosphere where everyone accepts songs calling for the murder of people based on their sexuality is unacceptable by targeting artists who perform hate songs. Outrage are not targetting reggae acts wholesale, and they're certainly not "blockading" Jamaican artists wholesale. I'm not sure if Arnold is guilty of sloppy journalism here or if he really does believe that Outrage are trying to stop all reggae concerts in the UK.

Furthermore, there are plenty of Jamaican artists who express no antigay sentiments whatsoever in their music, and homophobic statements are just a small part of the overall lyrical content of any one of the more controversial artists. Reducing these artists to one epithet -- gay-basher -- is both inherently racist and revisionary.

But Outrage are carefully targetting just those artists whose lyrics finger them as holding hostile attitudes. To suggest that Outrage is trying to portray all reggae acts as violently homophobic is at best a very muddle-headed understanding of their point of view.

No, Mr. Arnold: this isn't about race.


6 comments:

Anonymous said...

yo,
this is eric arnold, the author of the express article.
i'm not surprised that simon h b denied the existence or possibility of racism among white english gays completely, but i am amazed that he took my words out of context and twisted them to fit his mangled logic to such a degree.

first, he misreads my comment that the term "reggae bigots seems oxymoronic"--which spoke to the perception, not necessarily the reality (the key word there is "seems", which simon changes to "is", thus altering the context to allow him to make his point.) then for some odd reason, he lumps in lenny kravitz with the specials and skrewdriver. (fyi, simon,lenny isn't a ska artist, so you may want to rethink this analogy.)

next, he takes a simple stated fact, that patois lyrics have to be translated for non-jamaicans (which several gay rights groups have done in their pr materials, by the way), and projects his own overly-dramatic thoughts into it.

"Arnold seems to be implying that the calls to kill gays and lesbians don't really count," he writes.
simon, if you actually read the entire piece, you would have noticed that i not only called beenie man's behavior "idiotic," but noted that the murder of jamaican gay activists speaks "to the violence hateful lyrics can incite."

Simon's erroneousness doesn't stop there, however. he says it's just "astonishing" i would write that reggae an rap are taking over the uk, but evidence suggests otherwise. again, as i noted in the article, 1) reggae's market share in the uk has doubled in the last year; 2)beenie man had 4 top 20 uk singles at the time the controversy started; and 3)the recent MOBO nominations indicate the profile of jamaican artists abroad is rising.

his next erroneous point is actually somewhat humorous: "arnold believes that if musicians were asked to choose between being welcome in london and making songs calling for the chi chi men to be gunned down, we're in danger of forcing reggae into being little more than will smith with dub."

first of all, what i actually said was "any type of attempt to muzzle dancehall's lyrical expression could have a chilling effect on the entire genre...at the very least, there's a danger in any predominantly white organization attempting to characterize a predominantly black culture according to its own agenda." i stand by this statement.

secondly, if the possibility of reggae being watered-down as a result of all this seems improbable, i have two words: MAXI PRIEST.

simon goes on to dispute that outrage's campaign is affecting artists not on the gay "hit list," but the cancellation of an entire concert because of the presence of one or more of these artists pretty much proves this point, even without further elaboration. but since simon seems intellectually-challenged, as i also pointed out in the original article, both bushman and ce'cile were prevented from appearing in san francisco because they were on the undercard for the canceled beenie man show. simon, let me direct you to getaclue.now.

simon's last point--that outrage is not trying to portray all dancehall artists as violently homophobic--also rings false. their press releases never mentioned that homophobic lyrics are only a small portion of dancehall's overall lyrical content, or that any of the targeted artists have ever talked about anything else.

furthermore, few of the songs they have pointed out as examples of hate speech have been hit songs--most are obscure singles limited to jamaican release that few in england, america, or anywhere else, for that matter, have ever heard. in other words, homophobic lyrics are not the for reason dancehall's current popularity.

not to say dancehall is not homophobic to some extent, but i think the homophobia in dancehall has been completely blown out of proportion. this is why this anti-lyrical campaign is inherently racist, because the complete context of dancehall's lyrical content or the violence in jamaica--as i stated, only a small portion of which is directed at gays--has been omitted by a bunch of white gays hell-bent on attacking black jamaicans, while unwilling to admit their own racial issues.

fyi, the original article can be found at: http://eastbayexpress.com/issues/2004-09-15/close2thaedge.html

Amy said...

"i'm not surprised that simon h b denied the existence or possibility of racism among white english gays completely"....

Wait up. Where did he do this?

"simon's last point--that outrage is not trying to portray all dancehall artists as violently homophobic--also rings false. their press releases never mentioned that homophobic lyrics are only a small portion of dancehall's overall lyrical content, or that any of the targeted artists have ever talked about anything else."

Surely people are smart enough to figure that one out for themselves, without Outrage having to post needless caveats on press releases.

It is unfortunate that Outrage is a mainly white organisation trying to picket black artists, yet it's a huge leap in logic to then say that organisation is racist, particularly as the majority of its previous targets have been white. Concert cancellations were not intended as a result of the protests - the 'Reggae In The Park' event in London was cancelled because of 'security concerns', so make of that what you will. It is a shame that other artists are having to suffer their gigs being pulled, but again, that's not the organisation's intention.

Anonymous said...

"It is unfortunate that Outrage is a mainly white organisation trying to picket black artists..."

Hmmmm. You would prefer a mainly black organization trying to picket gays and lesbians? Oh, wait. That would be the Rainbow Coalition.

simon h b said...

Hello, Eric - thanks for responding to my piece.


===start quote=== i'm not surprised that simon h b denied the existence or possibility of racism among white english gays completely, but i am amazed that he took my words out of context and twisted them to fit his mangled logic to such a degree. ===end quote===

Or, in other words, gave my interpretation of what you were writing...

===start quote=== first, he misreads my comment that the term "reggae bigots seems oxymoronic"--which spoke to the perception, not necessarily the reality (the key word there is "seems", which simon changes to "is", thus altering the context to allow him to make his point.) then for some odd reason, he lumps in lenny kravitz with the specials and skrewdriver. (fyi, simon,lenny isn't a ska artist, so you may want to rethink this analogy.) ===end quote===

Yes, Lenny isn't ska... but neither are skrewdriver, they're rock. I suppose we could argue here if being ska also disqualifies from the Specials being considered a rock act as well.

I don't really think the is/seems thing makes much of a difference, it still is a meaningless thing to say, although, yes, I guess you could argue the point there - whatever, it's a nonsense.

===start quote=== next, he takes a simple stated fact, that patois lyrics have to be translated for non-jamaicans (which several gay rights groups have done in their pr materials, by the way), and projects his own overly-dramatic thoughts into it. ===end quote===

Well, yes - I don't actually see what difference it makes that the original homophobic words are in a form of speech that would be unfamiliar to many members of Outrage. You mentioned it, you obviously feel it is. Perhaps you could explain why?

===start quote=== "Arnold seems to be implying that the calls to kill gays and lesbians don't really count," he writes.
simon, if you actually read the entire piece, you would have noticed that i not only called beenie man's behavior "idiotic," but noted that the murder of jamaican gay activists speaks "to the violence hateful lyrics can incite." ===end quote===

I did read the entire piece, Eric, and, yes, you do make it clear you’re not endorsing Beenie Man's views, but since your whole piece seems to be suggesting that Outrage shouldn't be campaigning against them, I would argue pretty strongly you're suggesting that - at the very least - they don't have any effect on the lives of gay Britons.

===start quote=== Simon's erroneousness doesn't stop there, however. he says it's just "astonishing" i would write that reggae an rap are taking over the uk, but evidence suggests otherwise. again, as i noted in the article, 1) reggae's market share in the uk has doubled in the last year; 2)beenie man had 4 top 20 uk singles at the time the controversy started; and 3)the recent MOBO nominations indicate the profile of jamaican artists abroad is rising. ===end quote===

Eric, I don't know which East Bay you're on, but I'm sat in Milton Keynes - I think on this one you might have to let me have the advantage. Yes, there's a lot more reggae being sold now, yes, Beenie Man had some top 20 singles and, yes, the Mobo awards did have a number of nominations for reggae artists. That's not really the same thing as "taking over" because:

- starting from a small base, doubling doesn't really mean very much in the way of extra sales
- having a top 20 hit in the UK right now only requires the selling of a small number of singles. The Girls of FHM magazine had a top ten hit this year, that doesn't mean the British music scene is being taken over by pneumatic beauties.
and
- to the best of my knowledge, all the reggae acts nominated in the MOBO awards were, erm, nominated in the reggae category, which suggests it's not even broken out of its own section

===start quote=== his next erroneous point is actually somewhat humorous: "arnold believes that if musicians were asked to choose between being welcome in london and making songs calling for the chi chi men to be gunned down, we're in danger of forcing reggae into being little more than will smith with dub."

first of all, what i actually said was "any type of attempt to muzzle dancehall's lyrical expression could have a chilling effect on the entire genre...at the very least, there's a danger in any predominantly white organization attempting to characterize a predominantly black culture according to its own agenda." i stand by this statement. ===end quote===

... and then you went on to say "Censoring "offensive" lyrics by Jamaican artists could result in the same kind of dumbing-down and mainstream filtration that saturated rap music" - surely characterised by the distance between Public Enemy and the Fresh Prince? But the point is, of course, that while Will Smith and others becoming the face of Wal-Mart rap, you also had other acts like NWA who reacted to the attempts to clean up their patch by moving further in the opposite direction. Certainly, I doubt if Tipper Gore looks at the current output of rap and thinks she was successful. This is a worrying point, actually, and worthy of more consideration - what if Outrage just prompt the artists they're targeting to go "well, screw Europe, then, we'll just make our music even more hate-filled and keep them at home." The upshot there could be that Outrage will have made things worse for Jamaican gays, not better.

===start quote=== secondly, if the possibility of reggae being watered-down as a result of all this seems improbable, i have two words: MAXI PRIEST. ===end quote===

Or, indeed, UB40. But... are you actually blaming Outrage for Maxi Priest? I know Tatchell turns up all over the place, but even he can't time-travel, surely?

===start quote=== simon goes on to dispute that outrage's campaign is affecting artists not on the gay "hit list," but the cancellation of an entire concert because of the presence of one or more of these artists pretty much proves this point, even without further elaboration. but since simon seems intellectually-challenged, as i also pointed out in the original article, both bushman and ce'cile were prevented from appearing in san francisco because they were on the undercard for the canceled beenie man show. simon, let me direct you to getaclue.now. ===end quote===

Ah, "intellectually challenged" - I'm writing that down in my colouring book because it sounds like it might be rude. I shall look it up later.

Seriously, yeah, if you pull a gig the support acts will be cancelled, I guess that's true. But that's not "targeting other artists" - a knock-on effect, perhaps. However, your original piece suggested that Outrage was "blockading" Jamaican artists, which simply isn't true. They are targeting the homophobic artists, which seems fair.

===start quote=== simon's last point--that outrage is not trying to portray all dancehall artists as violently homophobic--also rings false. their press releases never mentioned that homophobic lyrics are only a small portion of dancehall's overall lyrical content, or that any of the targeted artists have ever talked about anything else. ===end quote===

I'm not sure if you're just pulling my leg here. Are you really saying that you think British people are so stupid they'll interpret "Beenie Man has a song about killing gays" as "all reggae artists are racist all the time"?

===start quote=== furthermore, few of the songs they have pointed out as examples of hate speech have been hit songs--most are obscure singles limited to jamaican release that few in england, america, or anywhere else, for that matter, have ever heard. in other words, homophobic lyrics are not the for reason dancehall's current popularity. ===end quote===

Odd, that, the British and American labels choose to pass on the homophobic singles. I wonder why? And Outrage aren't saying that reggae is popular in Jamaica because of the homophobia. Again, I have to ask: does it not matter if the hate doesn't get a wide audience? If it turned out, say, Bush would rail against Blacks and Hispanics, but only amongst his closest friends, would that mean we shouldn't campaign against it? At what point does a hate song become unacceptable, Eric? When it sells 1000? When it sells 10,000? If it gets an overseas release? Obviously, we're fundamentally opposed here - I’d say that recording a song that calls for people to be killed because they're gay would be wrong before the tape machine even starts running.

===start quote=== not to say dancehall is not homophobic to some extent, but i think the homophobia in dancehall has been completely blown out of proportion. this is why this anti-lyrical campaign is inherently racist, because the complete context of dancehall's lyrical content or the violence in jamaica--as i stated, only a small portion of which is directed at gays--has been omitted by a bunch of white gays hell-bent on attacking black jamaicans, while unwilling to admit their own racial issues. ===end quote===

It's not really being blown out of proportion - all Outrage are saying is that they don't think its right for this country to play host to singers who perform songs calling for crimes against any members of the community. I know you're convinced that this is because Outrage is "predominately white" (is it? I have no idea and, I suspect, neither do you, I bet you're just guessing) and "hell-bent on attacking black jamaiacans", but, really, I think you'll find that Outrage are, as they always have been, just hell-bent on attacking homophobes of all stripes and hues. It just happens that reggae artists are Black Jamaicans. Are you suggesting that Outrage should turn a blind eye to their calls because they're black?

The artists are singing songs which call for the execution of gays and lesbians. Outrage are asking venues not to put on concerts by people who record such songs. In the final analysis, I'd say that's a pretty measured response.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly: trying to force this issue into a racial framework is incredibly self-defeating. With the actual, genuine, proud racists of the BNP winning a council seat in London overnight - see http://politics.guardian.co.uk/farright/story/0,11375,1306828,00.html , there's more than enough real racists in the UK to attack, without trying to find racism where there isn't any.

Anonymous said...

If Outrage were racist, surely they'd give less of a shit about homophobia in a predominately black scene rather than more.

Anonymous said...

Eric, I don't know if you're still reading this exchange, but here's what a reader of both articles made of them.

* OutRage!, Simon and you all seem very clear on a fairly obvious fact: not all Jamaican music is bigoted.

* There are some details about British culture which are relevant here, and it's very clear that Simon spills over with awareness of British music, while your picture comes across as second-hand. Which it probably is... it's to be expected.

* As for the Big Question: is it racist to target a black form of music? Well, I can remember go-nowhere conversations about cultural relativism from my undergraduate days. Let's dodge that, and try instead to imagine something which would decide it: if a white artist made a [dancehall / bashment / whatever] track which said it would be a good idea to beat or kill gay men, would OutRage! still be outraged? I suspect they would. Perhaps you disagree.

* It's a free country. Well, sort of. OutRage! seems to me to be trying to use hate crime legislation. People can have a problem with that (again, the student bar is calling), but it's a different issue.


I'm a long-time reader of XRRF and the words there are always acute on music and sexuality. I don't agree with every one of them, but your diatribe above seemed a little petulant and unmeasured. I also read the East Bay Express from time to time (idiosyncratic reason: they gave a nice review to a Bay Area production of a play I wrote, and I pop my head back in occasionally). I was a little surprised to see your article there -- it seemed below par -- but you have to allow a little with foreign papers. Symmetrically, I don't really "get" America.

So if we're talking about the details, I have to ignore much of your argument. And if we do want to do the "is it cos they is black?" thing, there's an interesting article by head OutRage!er Peter Tatchell here which makes the case that any "cultural" homphobia in the West Indies is there because of the prejudices of the old white slavemasters.

You may be better off conceding this one.

--Alan Connor

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